H&M is coming out with a new line of baby clothes that can be recycled in an unexpected way once they're worn out - composting.
The 12-piece organic cotton collection for newborns (priced from $4.99 to $17.99) launches in May and includes tops, bottoms with adjustable waistbands and cuffs, jackets, hats and blankets.
Abigail Kammerzell, H&M's US head of sustainability, said all items are 100% biodegradable, including the pigments used to print designs on the clothing. She said the pieces are also deliberately absent of buttons or any metal trim.
This is to ensure that each piece can be composted when it's at its end of use, even by just putting them in an at-home compost pile.
Kammerzell said the collection is certified by the environmental group Cradle to Cradle for using materials free of chemicals that are harmful to humans and the environment and producing the items with 100% recycled water and renewable energy.
"This is the first of any of our clothing collections that is compostable," Kammerzell said.
Given H&M's global scale, with over 4,000 stores worldwide, she said the company is in a position to "enable big changes in the fashion industry and we hope to be a leader in sustainability and keep clothes out of landfills."
This latest effort from the Swedish fashion retailer comes amid rising volumes of global clothing waste and growing concern over fast fashion's contribution to it.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 17 million tons of textile waste - with discarded clothing being the main source - was generated in the United States in 2018, the latest data available. The recycling rate was just 14.7%, with 2.5 million tons recycled.
The EPA said landfills received 11.3 million tons of that 2018 textile waste, which represented 7.7% of all municipal waste that ended up in landfills.
H&M and other fast fashion sellers including Zara have recently taken steps to curtail clothing waste.
In 2013, H&M launched a global garment collecting program and has set a goal of having all clothing sold in its stores be made from recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030. That figure currently stands at 80%, according to the company.
The retailer collected more than 29,000 tons of garment for its recycling program in 2019 but said the pandemic slowed the effort in 2020 and 2021, with nearly 16,000 tons collected last year.
Similarly, customers can drop off used clothing, footwear and accessories at more than 1,300 Zara stores. In 2019, the Spanish fast fashion chain (which is owned by Inditex) announced that all of the cotton, linen and polyester used by the company will be organic, sustainably sourced or recycled by 2025.
Kammerzell said H&M has tripled the share of recycled materials used in its garments from 5.8% to 17.9%, with the goal of reaching 30% by 2025.
But she acknowledged that challenges remain for the industry to more fully embrace sustainability efforts. "We're not on board with new suppliers who have coal boilers on their premises," she said. "There are lots of factories in the industry that still use them."
Jessica Schreiber is the founder and CEO of FABSCRAP, a nonprofit initiative that provides pickup and recycling services for fabric scraps from businesses in New York City and Philadelphia.
Schreiber said she's excited too see a big industry name like H&M continuing to push for innovation in sustainability. But she's cautious that these are incremental solutions to combat a much bigger problem.
"It's always a step forward for a company as big as H&M to show it is making an effort. But fast fashion retailers also put out so much clothing regularly," Schreiber said. "To really turn the tide and slow down the volume of garments that's ending up in the waste stream will consistently require much bigger moves."